- - Thursday, March 28, 2013

Television watchers across the country are glomming on to an unlikely megahit: the History Channel’s 10-hour retelling of stories from the Bible. To the disbelief of Hollywood executives, viewers are shunning a lineup that includes “Revenge” and “The Mentalist” to watch another telling of the greatest story ever told.

During its first three weeks, the miniseries produced by reality-show producer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, the star of “Touched By an Angel,” has drawn upward of 10 million viewers for each episode. That’s more, our critic Daniel Wattenberg reports, than anything aired by ABC or NBC during the same period. Who needs “Scandal” or “Deception” when the original, complete with serpent, is available?

This is not a line-by-line, chapter-and-verse telling of the stories from the Bible. Events are compressed, and more than one critical eyebrow has been raised over the ninja-style fighting engaged in by angels and the Israelites in their escape from bondage. Many biblical chronicles of the past, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and John Huston’s “The Bible: In the Beginning,” took pains to closely follow much of the Bible story. Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey chose instead to elevate drama and spectacle over close adherence to the text. A disclaimer at the start of each episode warns that the stories are “based on,” not “of” the biblical text.

Such departures seem of little importance to the millions of viewers or prominent evangelical Christian ministers who have endorsed the series, including megachurch pastors, the Revs. T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. For them, it’s enough to present the Bible as an engrossing, layered, inspiring and entertaining story. What happens to Samson? Will Daniel escape the lion’s den? How does Peter respond to Christ’s invitation to follow Him? In a country where biblical literacy may be at an unprecedented low, when Jay Leno gets man-in-the-street laughs from someone who thinks the four Gospel accounts were written by “John, Paul, George and Ringo,” a light approach to the Bible story whets millions of appetites.

The authors neither belittle nor disparage the Scripture’s message or meaning. They’re devout Christians themselves and strove for authenticity. They shot much of the series on location in Ouarzazate, a provincial capital in south-central Morocco that was the shooting locale of “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962. Aided by dazzling special effects that DeMille could never have imagined — viewers see daylight through the pierced hand of the resurrected Jesus — the story comes vividly to life.

Hollywood itself would do well to closely examine the overall success of “The Bible,” which concludes its initial television run on Sunday. Home-video release will follow by Tuesday, and the DVD and Blu-ray discs are expected to be hot sellers, too.

Sordid and trashy has become the norm for much of television entertainment, and the Bible’s blockbuster success should inspire entertainment executives to think again about taking stories from the Bible. A lot of people thought the runaway success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” a decade ago would inspire Hollywood, too. The market for family-oriented, values-affirming entertainment is huge and all but untapped. The success of “The Bible” ought to persuade Hollywood, where the pursuit of money is all, that such stories are where the money is.

The Washington Times